But what made him a truly tragic figure was not his physical handicap (of a type that many – perhaps most – of us will experience if we live long enough) but his insistence on dressing like an adolescent in jeans, a flowered short and basketball shoes, with a single, large gold earring and a Keith Richards coiffure circa 1970, except for its greyness.
Here was a man who had not (as Mr Blair would no doubt have put it) moved on. He was caught in adolescence as flies were once caught in amber. And this was a tragedy not only for him as an individual but, on the assumption that he was far from alone but rather representative of a social trend, for society as a whole: for as everyone knows, having once been adolescent themselves, adolescence is a time of extreme bad taste and what might be called conformist rebellion, or rebellious conformity. It was a tragedy for him as an individual because it made him dream an impossible but also worthless dream; it was a tragedy for society because it made immaturity the highest good.
When I was in my early twenties, I had long hair that reached below my shoulder blades, which I often wore in a ponytail extending out through the back of a baseball-style cap. I preferred wearing XL shirts rather than the mediums which would have fit me. And as silly as it looks to me now, I did favor worn, tattered jeans. To be fair, I worked in my family’s newspaper distributorship, where most of the non-office work was the type to get your hands and clothes dirty. While we weren’t “working-class” (assuming such terms haven’t long-since lost whatever usefulness they once had), we simply rarely had occasion to go around in business casual.
I remember one day, walking out of a mall, where I had been collecting payment from one of our client stores. (Yes, this was before electronic billing, back when malls still had bookstores which sold newspapers.) There were a couple of old men perched on one of the benches outside the entrance. As I walked past, one said to the other, in a stage whisper (or perhaps they were both just hard of hearing), “The youth of today!” I thought I could hear their neck tendons creaking as they shook their heads disapprovingly. For a moment, I wondered if it wouldn’t be funny if I walked over and politely explained to them that, yes, while I may look shocking to their sensibilities, I was nonetheless working a full-time job while helping to raise my girlfriend’s three-year-old son, and isn’t that sort of responsibility what’s really important? I didn’t, of course; I just drove off and left them to their bitter reminiscences.
Recently, we were in a country club for a dinner and meeting, where the guest speaker was my former philosophy professor. One thing I noticed, because of its incongruity, was how many people, the men in particular, were wearing running shoes with their jackets and slacks. Judging by my own father’s experience with fallen arches causing swollen ankles, I assume this reflects the need for ease of mobility. When walking is difficult enough due to aching, arthritic joints, why compound the misery by forcing your feet into uncomfortable dress shoes for vain appearance’s sake?
While it may be true that society collectively promotes and rewards immaturity, it nonetheless doesn’t follow that one can diagnose Peter Pan-syndrome at a mere glance. Whenever Dalrymple seems to lack inspiration for an essay, he resorts to curmudgeonly ranting about how we’re all going to hell in a handbasket because grown men wear jeans and tattoos aren’t just for sailors and prison inmates anymore. It’s an unfortunate reminder that being shallow is hardly exclusive to youth.